A Look Back At Malaysia
07 December 2017
Over our last 6 years of cruising we have got into the routine of enjoying the water swimming and snorkelling, exploring small coves and bays in our dingy, and hiking through trails on the islands we visited. Malaysia provided none of these highlights. The water was murky (and in some areas it was so polluted that we were literally cruising through a sea of garbage). The islands we did anchor off were mere roadsteads on our way to another destination and hiking trails were non-existent. However, in place of our usual routine we were presented with amazing cultural experiences and opportunities to learn about the rich, fascinating history of the region. It brought us back to our old school days, learning about ancient trade with the Orient and Asia - but we learned more in two months than we ever did back then.
Our Malaysian cruising season was really a trip up the East coast of the country through the famous Malacca Straits. This is the area of pirates of old, centuries of trade with cultures from around the globe, and British, Dutch and Portuguese colonization. The Chinese have also had a large influence. After a relaxing break in Puteri marina we headed up the coast to Malacca. This was probably our favourite stop on our trip. Through its history Malacca has been controlled initially by the Sultan of the area, then the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the English and finally, with independence, power returned to the Sultan. To add to the mix, on the North side of the river the Chinese created a trading centre as well. The city is crowded with museums and we spent days exploring and soaking up the rich history. We could have easily spent longer.
From Malacca we headed to Admirals Bay Marina, a long day trip up the coast. Here we enjoyed the luxury of a pool to cool off in and a bar to catch up with other rally members. This was also the starting point for a tour to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The architecture of this area is stunning, including both the head Sultan's (King's) palace and the famous twin towers. We also visited the Batu caves with their gigantic granite caverns and Hindu sculptures.
Next up the coast was Pankor Island. This is where a lot of cruisers end their season with a haul-out at the boat yard for maintenance (and sometimes major refits). A couple of our long time cruising friends have been "on the hard" for the last year to upgrade their galley among a host of other projects. Pankor island Marina is actually attached to the mainland and is a short ferry ride away from Pankor Island. A rally-organized day trip took us to the island for visits to an old Dutch fort, a wood boat building yard and a fish processing plant. It was interesting to see the end result of the fish caught in all the nets we had avoided!
From Pankor we headed to Penang with a overnight stop at a small island to keep our cruising within daylight hours. Almost to be predicted a local fisherman set a net in the 200 yards between us and the island! Luckily we didn't drift into it and left it safely behind when we left the next morning. On reaching Penang we anchored behind a small island just off Penang island and the site of an old penitentiary. Again just a roadstead anchorage and the next morning we heading off to Straits Quay Marina, possibly the best marina on the coast. We used this as a base to explore Penang, another city thick with trading history. It also has the best cake shop I have ever seen. Two bakers bake 60 cakes of all kinds each day and they all seem to disappear by the end of the day. Both of us helped in that process!
After Penang we had another two day trip up to Langkawi, the last destination on the rally. Another small island anchorage, another net set between us and the shore, and another safe escape in the morning. This was followed by another day of avoiding fish nets and boats, and a safe arrival at Telaga Marina. This was not our final destination, but we had a few project that were more easily completed there. We also enjoyed a selection of restaurants including a night of Arabian dancing (we both discovered that we're not particularly talented in that area).
We are now in Rebak Marina on the small island of Rebak, which is just 15 minutes by water taxi to the main island of Langkawi. The marina shares the island with a resort, complete with pool and excellent restaurant. Our days are filled with boat projects, packing for our trip home and frequent trips to the pool and restaurant. Exit Strategy will be hauled out next week for bottom paint and will stay on the hard until our return in January.
It has been a very different season of cruising this year but in a good way. Certainly our knowledge of the geography and history of this area has exploded. Next the Indian Ocean.
(New images in the Malaysia gallery album)
Beyond the Straits
25 October 2017
We don' generally gravitate towards marinas (which can feel like being in the middle of a parking lot), but the conveniences (such as a fuel dock, laundry facilities, showers with unlimited hot water, and re provisioning from the dock rather than lugging groceries back and forth in the dinghy) are a welcome change once in a while... in fact they feel like a true luxury after sailing for months in remote areas.
Facilities at Puteri Marina and its adjoining new development offered most of these little luxuries (with the added benefit of having the most efficient, hassle-free clearance procedure to enter a country we've experienced in our travels.
Our only real challenge was bearing the stifling heat and humidity. Not a whif of breeze wafted into the Marina and we were literally dripping with perspiration onboard. Fortunately we were able to escape to the air conditioned coffee shop and fan-cooled open air restaurants along the Harbour each day. Such a hardship.
Oddly, the bus tour organized by the Rally was enhanced greatly by the fact that we spent more time traveling to and from the destinations (think air conditioning) than we did sightseeing! (Not to diminish the sightseeing of course, which was quite interesting: including a visit to an historic Sultan's palace which became a strategic military defense against European invasions, a crocodile sanctuary featuring a 120 year old one ton monster, and a horseshoe crab farm - which has become an important asset to the local community because of the value they have in new drug research trials. (These strange looking creatures remind me of a Klingon warship!).
So our time at Puteri was great. Plus, it was a mere 50 minute taxi ride from the Marina to Singapore, which we'd be crazy not to take advantage of, right? So we packed a couple of bags, hopped into a car and played tourists for a few days in this iconic city - losing ourselves in fabulous museums, parks, and shops and walking for miles gawking at outstanding architecture. And we just happened to be enjoying a cocktail along the Harbour front when we noticed an attractive tall woman strolling past us along the sea wall, seemingly unbothered by swarms of paparazzi. Apparently Vanessa Williams was in town for a tennis tournament!
The city was clean, safe, and cosmopolitan, and it has the most efficient, user-friendly subway systems we've ever seen. Singapore's strategic location as a global shipping and trading hub, and its exponential growth and development since separating from Malaysia in 1965 made it even more fascinating. We would return in a heartbeat.
Crossing The Singapore Straits
17 October 2017
People don't generally share stories about mundane experiences, so all we'd heard about were harrowing stories about cruisers getting caught in violent squalls and white-out conditions from torrential rain, being blasted by deafening cargo ship horns to get out of their path and dodging small fishing boats wandering in and out of shipping channels. Then of course there are the recent reports about catastrophic collisions between commercial and navy ships. Scary stuff!
Our experience was anything but dramatic. In fact it was relatively brief, uneventful and a bit anticlimactic. Not that we're complaining... in this situation boring is good. What we would have found helpful (but had difficulty finding), were recommended routes with waypoints from cruisers who had recently crossed the Singapore Straits without incident.
So if you happen to be reading this blog and are interested in how we did it, here are the details:
We left Nongsa Point Marina on North Pulau Batam at first light and headed for the southern edge of the shipping channel. This way, we could avoid small fishing boats, FADs and drift nets, and set an efficient course along the shoulder of the 'superhighway' until we reached the appropriate 'crosswalk'. Electronic charts make it easy. (The only traffic we experienced along the perimeter was a warship which sped across our bow, close enough to impress us with its guns and missiles.)
We were fortunate to have positive tide and made 7.5 knots as we motored west in 3 knots of wind. (The tides can be difficult to predict, as they're variable in this region, so an early departure can buy you time in case you have adverse current or get caught in a squall.)
We monitored VHF 16 and 73 (relevant to ships in the Singapore sector of the Strait). The chatter was constant but understandable, given the risks associated with the speed and momentum of massive ships making navigation errors.
We held a course of 265 degrees magnetic for an hour and a half until we reached the second crosswalk. By then we had close to 3 knots of positive current. Approximate position of the crosswalk: Lat: 01 11.56N Long: 103 49.62E.
There was an opening between ships in the eastbound lane which we skirted across easily, and we were able to continue on without stopping in the centre (which is permitted) by slipping behind the stern of a huge cargo ship in the westbound lane. We crossed the entire highway in less than 15 minutes. No drama.
Now that we were on the northern edge of the shipping channel we altered course to 250 degrees magnetic and continued along the outer perimeter until we reached the 'bunkering zone', which would lead us towards the narrow waterway between Singapore and the southeast tip of Malaysia.
Weaving through the bunkering zone/anchorage felt more daunting than the crossing as a handful of the hundred or so ships around us were actually arriving and departing. The trick was to determine which ones they were! (AIS was a big help, and its illegal for visiting yachts to navigate these waters without it).
The longest ship we passed in the bunkering zone was 'CS Development' which was 1116 feet long. Fortunately, it was at anchor - I don't think it would even feel a bump if it mowed us over!
Its worth noting that there are significant land reclamation projects underway along the Malaysian and Singapore coastlines. Dredgers and barges are reclaiming vast sections of land along the shore - so it pays to keep an eye on your depth sounder and a keen lookout for obstacles, as charts can be inaccurate.
Where its really important to pay attention to the paper and electronic charts is the Singapore territorial waters borderline. Crossing into Singapore waters (even just a little bit) without receiving advance clearance can draw immediate attention by Coastguard vessels and helicopters, who keep a vigilant lookout around the clock.
Once past the bunkering zone we headed north up the waterway along the outer perimeter of the Singapore border and within a few hours we had ducked under the centre of the bridge (maximum height: 25 meters). Clearance heights always seem lower than they are and we both sighed in relief about making it under the bridge unscathed, even though we had plenty of clearance.
Our last challenge was to enter Puteri Harbour - the opening to which, according to our electronic charts, placed us on land. Downloading Google Earth images overlaid onto SEAIQ on our iPad in advance helped immensely. Once inside three Marina staff members guided us into our berth and tied our lines, and that's when it started to hit us... this morning we waved goodbye to Indonesia, crossed the infamous Singapore Straits without incident, and arrived in Malaysia - and it was only noon!
(more images in the photo gallery)
Indonesia, A Look Back
16 October 2017
So how was our 2 month in Indonesia? Probably the hardest 2 months of cruising we have done in the last 6 years. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Indonesia is a beautiful country with enough anchorages and reefs to spend a lifetime cruising here. And the people are probably the friendliest we have met on our travels, always smiling and happy to help.
However from a cruisers perspective there are a number of challenges. Distances. Wind. Obstacles...
First, distances. Indonesia covers a far greater area than we anticipated when we left Australia. We have traveled over 1400 nautical miles in the last two months since we arrived in Kupang, a lot of hours of traveling at 5-6 knots. This has been compounded by trying to sail only during daylight hours (see below). So many of our ‘cruising days’ were spent finding the next anchorage within 50 miles, getting up at 5, leaving the anchorage by 6 (first light) and arriving at the next anchorage at 4-5 in the afternoon (dusk), eating, sleeping, repeating.
Secondly the wind factor. One rally participant suggested they change the rally name from Sail Indonesia to Motor Indonesia! The winds were often light to non-existent and usually from the Southeast. Our predominant course was Northwest so we often had just enough wind to blow the diesel fumes from the engine exhaust into the cockpit! Again the wish to travel only during daylight and the distances between anchorages made motoring imperative on most days. Not to say we didn’t have a few great sails, we did - but they were few and far between.
Lastly the obstacles. Indonesia has 300 million inhabitants and I think the majority are out fishing most of the time! Because of the oppressive sun and heat during the day, as well as the practice of using lights to attract fish, night fishing predominates, making cruising at night challenging and potentially dangerous. Even during daytime hours fishing nets are a constant threat for propellors and rudders. We have been lucky - but we know of at least four fellow cruisers who have been tangled in nets. Two of whom had to jump over the side at night to free themselves. To make matters worse FADs (fish attracting devices) are scattered randomly across the ocean. These floating unlit platforms are challenging to see during the day and impossible to see at night. We hit one small one with only minor scratches to the hull and narrowly missing a large one that would have done significant damage. So during our two months in Indonesia we only did four overnight passages.
Again I should emphasize Indonesia is a great place to visit. There are challenges with poverty, lack of infrastructure and waste management, which is common to many developing nations (the amount of plastic in the ocean was alarming!), but the lack of development is also part if its charm. If we were to do it again we may have spent longer so we could stop and enjoy anchorages rather than constantly being on the move, or even take two seasons to do it justice.
Temperamental Weather Gods
11 October 2017
If you're not superstitious, spending a little time at the equator on a boat might change your mind.
After being cooped-up inside all day sweltering in the heat with our hatches closed, and cringing as deafening cracks of thunder made the floorboards shudder beneath our feet, I realized that we neglected to toast Zeus when we crossed the equator.
We made a point of toasting Neptune to honour the age-old sailor's tradition, appealing to him for calm seas and pouring a splash of rum in the sea. It seemed to work perfectly. He bestowed us with glassy calm seas during our crossing. But in doing so, we must have inadvertently shunned Zeus (God of the Skies). Feeling under-appreciated with Neptune getting all of the attention, Zeus had a nasty temper tantrum, shooting lightening bolts and ear-splitting cracks of thunder, and dousing us with hours of torrential rain. Ill have to remember to fill a spray bottle with rum for our next passage...
Last Stop in Indonesia
10 October 2017
We arrived at Nongsa Marina a few days ago after a three day and two night passage from Belitung. Along the way we narrowly averted a fishing net in the middle of the night. Only a rapid shift into full reverse and a 90 degree turn saved us from wrapping the net around our propellor. We then spent the next hour following along the net using a flashlight to illuminate the small floats holding it up. We calculated it went on for over two miles! But we are now safe and sound, tied up to a dock for the first time since Australia and at our last stop in Indonesia. To say the least Nongsa is pretty upscale from what we experienced in the rest of Indonesia, complete with resort and pool! We will spend a week here relaxing and using the pool to cool off and then tackle the Singapore straits, the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Sort of like crossing a 8 lane highway on a tricycle! But we always love a challenge.